French girls! They ride their bikes to le marché and buy le pain and maybe a little vin rouge for dinner avec leurs copines, and then they go on long walks, maybe smoke a cigarette, and gyms are so américaine, non? French girls simply wake up looking like they are about to roll into an Agnès B. campaign: lips red but not too red, bangs hanging over eyebrows, which are never plucked, are you kidding? Ze French girls simply do not care! And as a result, we, the non-French girls, care very much, and French girls are reaping our investment to the tune of tripling profits year over year. C’est vrai!
"You ask about financials?" Jeanne Damas asks. Her lips, honest to God, form a perfect heart shape around the filter of a hand-rolled cigarette. She takes the duration of an inhale to consider divulging specific numbers about her business, and her answer finally arrives in a plume of smoke she exhales into the brisk Parisian afternoon: "It’s really great. And fast."
How great and how fast? The specifics of Damas's business are not disclosed. But in 2016, the model and influencer launched her own fashion brand, Rouje, as in rouge, as in red, as in the shade of lipstick (the j is for Jeanne). And last year, Rouje launched beauty, with a best-selling lip product that retails for more than twice the price of a tube of MAC Ruby Woo, and three days prior to our meeting, Rouje opened its first store — with an adjoining restaurant — not far from the cartographic center of Paris. Business has, according to Damas, nearly tripled every year since the brand’s conception — without one euro of outside investment. So yes, business is really great. And fast!
In her native country, Damas is what is known as an It girl, a term applied to a gorgeous young person who is gorgeous and young, and whom magazines love to interview about their personal routines, and whom fashion designers love to dress up in their clothes, and whom non-Its find pleasure in observing. In America, Damas is a French It girl, patron saint of a particular beauty ideal: that of the French girl. And it’s a quantifiable export. Alongside France, America and the U.K. comprise Rouje’s largest markets, with Japan trailing just behind.
If there are obvious arguments to problematize the whole French-girl obsession — particularly that it upholds a Eurocentric standard of beauty — it’s either lost on or ignored by Rouje’s ravenous public. It is true that in 2019, there are more consumer options than ever for people who do not fit the mold of a young woman whose every physical attribute is young, thin, and straight. But that part earlier about Rouje’s profits tripling every year for the last three years? Also true.
"It was not the plan," says Damas, wearing a blazer that is both too large and fits perfectly, smoking a cigarette (again) at a café beneath the woolly sky of Paris. "I did not study fashion. But my...parcours?"
The English word escapes her, so she turns to her agent to clarify.
"Your career path?" he offers.
"Yeah. My way? It’s because...of people I meet?" She’s looking for an English word that escapes her. Then she pouts. "I want to speak French!" Damas confides many times that she is sensitive about her English, which is in fact spoken so beautifully that one is tempted to prevent her from learning the rest of the language. Her vowels are bright, round pearls strung together into sentences. Big ideas are described in simple terms — "great" and "fast" — and simple ideas are conveyed meaningfully, like when she describes a designer’s taste as his "envy," her speech as ornate and precise as lace. The found poetry of non-English speakers speaking English.
Damas was born in Paris to two restaurateurs — the family lived above their brasserie, using its sprawling kitchen to cook their meals. Petite Jeanne spent a lot of time in the restaurant, which was a favorite of people in the Parisian fashion world. "I was talking really a lot," Damas says, her English held together by syrup-coated syllables. "They were calling me a" — she looks to her agent — "poissonnière?"
"Because you know, in the market. Ah, my fish!" She waves toward the street, mimicking somebody drawing a crowd’s attention, dazzling them into a transaction.
"And I was also so — I’m really a girl’s girl, like a...sorority is really important. I was never jealous of girls, but more admirative of girls. I think it’s really important to help [the h in help completely disappears] each other ["eech uzzer"]. It was really important to...rencontre. How do you say rencontre?"
She means to meet, but maybe more like to bond?
"It’s a cliché. But we play with this cliché. It’s because of it that I have success."
About 10 years ago, pre-Instagram, Damas began doing her bonding with fellow fashion folk on Tumblr. At the time, she was documenting her life in Paris, and most of the photos archived online depict intimate, gossamer scenes with friends and without context — snapshots that we would liken to "moods" or "vibes" had we possessed that vernacular in 2009. By the time she began Instagramming in 2012, Damas was a Paris fashion-scene fixture. And then America found her.
It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the fascination with French-girl everything became a raison d’être. French fashion arrived on the global stage toward the middle of the 20th century, dovetailing with the French New Wave movement, whose stars (Brigitte Bardot, Anouk Aimée, Anna Karina) still comprise the pantheon of French-girl-ness. Besides their thinness and their whiteness and their alpine cheekbones and their clearly delineated lower lashes, the physical characteristics of each vary (slightly!), which creates the illusion of embracing individual beauty that has underscored the myth of the French girl ever since. It’s aspirational but accessible, like everything else we are buying in 2019.
Damas entered the American influencer market as its French ambassador. Harper’s Bazaar, 2015: Damas issues her first American proclamation on French-girl beauty. W, 2017: "Model Jeanne Damas embodies the effortlessly chic French girl look." (This was published around the time that "French beauty" hit its search peak, according to Google Trends.) Refinery29 the same year: "She doesn’t fix her hair because she doesn’t have to.... She smokes, she drinks, she swears." In 2019, Damas was interviewed for Vogue about Los Angeles, a city in which she does not live. "My favorite landmark to visit is the Hollywood sign," she discloses. "Is there anything more iconic?"
Of course, Damas is well aware that she is a walking American consumer fetish in the same way that a CEO has a financial obligation to examine their success in a foreign market. "It’s a cliché," Damas says, shrugging. "But we play with this cliché. It’s because of it that I have success." In the same breath, she warns that all Parisians are not the same, let alone all French people. Indeed, Paris has one of the largest concentrations of immigrants in Europe today — about 20 percent of the population (double that is second-generation). In the country as a whole, that number is closer to 10 percent, or six million people. But diversity is not the French-girl construct that sells. The girl that sells has roots in the Marais, not Morocco. Just over 40 percent of France today is overweight, but the French girl’s silhouette? Always sylphlike. Her hair never Done, but always done.
Damas’s hair is the color of 1.2 million Instagram followers, with bangs that lounge across her forehead like babes on holiday. Her lips are painted with 2.2 million YouTube views, and her cheeks are flushed with 60,000-plus likes. She is dressed head to toe in Rouje: a thick red sweater tucked into high-waisted jeans and underlined with brown croc-embossed boots. Everything Rouje is Jeanne, and vice versa: Shoppers are not buying a pair of jeans or a lipstick — they are buying jeans cut to the precise geometry of her hips, they are buying the ideal balance of red and blue tones to complement her complexion, down to the freckles dusted across her nose like cinnamon on a café au lait. "The idea is to do my perfect closet every year," she says.
"I’m living in Paris, and I didn’t fake it."
In 1912, the Galeries Lafayette was established in Paris’s 9th arrondissement, its broad windows designed to bathe the merchandise in sunlight, a magnificent Art Nouveau cathedral to trap the awe of incoming customers, and thousands of items to peruse under one roof. More than a century later and less than a mile away, Rouje is a sparse, whitewashed shrine to Damas — her tastes and whims packaged for sale and merchandised in situ, her lifestyle captured down to her favorite meals, which shoppers can inhale in exchange for a moderate price at the shop’s restaurant.
Rouje’s beauty line, of course, is designed exclusively as a wardrobe for Damas — a gradient of reds (but only those she would wear) that exist both in bullet form and distilled into quadrisected palettes so you have to use your finger to apply them, which is very much by design. The effect of blotting lipstick on with a finger gives it a matte quality, so the finishes of each product do not buckle under the brightest of lights. Innovations in makeup have tended toward the luminescent, but according to Hélène Aubier, who heads up Rouje’s beauty team, the brand will only adopt new technology where it intersects with Damas’s interests. An ink-style lip product with a velvet finish, then, happily launched this fall.
"[Manufacturers] won’t show me glitter or sparkling products," Aubier gravely assures me. "They know Rouje." Their best-selling products are Damas’s red lipstick and Damas’s palette of red lipsticks. The products are also dressed in gold, vintage-looking, Deco packaging designed to look like heirlooms, accessing yet another valence of effortlessness, as if they were simply inherited from an impossibly chic aunt, as opposed to being vulgarly purchased in pursuit of vanity.
In February, Rouje will launch its first mascara, a product that I am not allowed to observe but that appears on the lashes of Aubier, which shoot toward me from across a large wooden table.
At Damas’s office, the scene is remarkably similar to that of an American startup — young people staring into MacBooks at shared tables, speaking quietly. At one point, Damas walks over to snap a photo of an upcoming collection before disappearing into an adjacent room to help out the styling team by standing in as their fit model.
One decade ago, when Damas was 17, fashion lines were designed by people who had years of technical experience, and lifestyle brands were founded by Academy Award winners. Damas’s qualifications are fewer: She is radiant, and charming, and stylish, and extremely successful by any metric.
Damas hypothesizes that her success comes from her honesty. "I’m living in Paris, and I didn’t fake it. I think also I’m really authentic. I’m really me. And I never change my style, I never follow trends, so people like that, I think. Also I think I have — I don’t know if it’s a talent, but I know I have a talent for communication. I also do photos, and I think I have an eye. I don’t know how I get it, maybe with the restaurant, with my life, with the people I met."
Late afternoon reaches across Paris as Damas and I say goodbye. I ask her a banal reporter’s question, the kind you throw out and don’t expect much in return: "What are you reading?" She tells me she’s just finished Stefan Zweig’s Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman, which served as the basis for the 1938 film. As the title suggests, the book argues that Antoinette was not inherently good or evil, but an ordinary person thrust into extraordinary political significance. Her crown was handed to her like a gift, Zweig writes, and she accepted it without question and without gravity: "She wanted to combine two things which are, in actual human experience, incompatible. She wanted to reign and at the same time to enjoy." Et voilà.
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Originally Appeared on Allure